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A pioneering figure in independent filmmaking, writer-director Richard Brooks applied his journalistic background to his feature film career, in which he explored the best and worst in human behavior in films like "The Blackboard Jungle" (1955), "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958), "The Professionals" (1966) and "In Cold Blood" (1967). Brooks moved from newspaper man and radio writer to penning scripts for noir films like "Brute Force" (1947) and "Key Largo" (1948), where he honed his talent for characters who operated on both sides of the law. After graduating to director in the 1950s, he earned an Oscar for writing "Elmer Gantry" (1960) and nominations for writing and directing "Blackboard," "Cat," and "The Professionals" before writing and directing his masterwork, the black-and-white docudrama "In Cold Blood" (1967). The film also served as the coda for his career, as Brooks would try and fail to meet its standard of quality for much of the next two decades. His best work, however, would stand the test of time, and ensure him a spot among the cinematic immortals.Born Ruben Sax on May 18, 1912, he was the son of Russian Jews who immigrated to Philadelphia, PA. Journalism became his focus as a student...
A pioneering figure in independent filmmaking, writer-director Richard Brooks applied his journalistic background to his feature film career, in which he explored the best and worst in human behavior in films like "The Blackboard Jungle" (1955), "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958), "The Professionals" (1966) and "In Cold Blood" (1967). Brooks moved from newspaper man and radio writer to penning scripts for noir films like "Brute Force" (1947) and "Key Largo" (1948), where he honed his talent for characters who operated on both sides of the law. After graduating to director in the 1950s, he earned an Oscar for writing "Elmer Gantry" (1960) and nominations for writing and directing "Blackboard," "Cat," and "The Professionals" before writing and directing his masterwork, the black-and-white docudrama "In Cold Blood" (1967). The film also served as the coda for his career, as Brooks would try and fail to meet its standard of quality for much of the next two decades. His best work, however, would stand the test of time, and ensure him a spot among the cinematic immortals.
Born Ruben Sax on May 18, 1912, he was the son of Russian Jews who immigrated to Philadelphia, PA. Journalism became his focus as a student at Temple University. Brooks worked first as a sports reporter for newspapers in New York and Atlantic City, where he met and befriended Samuel Fuller, another writer who would later turn to directing in the 1950s. Radio became his next medium, and he worked as a staff writer for the NBC network before trying his hand at directing for stage at the Mill Pond Theatre in New York. In the 1940s, he began writing novels, as well as screenplays for various low-budget genre films, including the delirious costume epic "Cobra Woman" (1944) with Maria Montez. His artistic pursuits were interrupted when Brooks joined the U.S. Marines to serve in World War II.
Upon his return, Brooks began writing noir thrillers for the studios, which helped him gain a reputation for stories filled with morally ambiguous characters who fought against tyrannical forces with unflinching violence. Among his early efforts were such classics of the genre as "The Killers" (1946), for which he provided an uncredited polish, and the gritty prison drama "Brute Force" (1947) for director Jules Dassin. That same year, his fifth novel, The Brick Foxhole (1945), was adapted into the feature "Crossfire" (1947). Brooks received credit for the script written by John Paxton, who changed the story's central crime - the murder of a gay man by a group of discharged Marines - to a killing motivated by anti-Semitism. After penning the script for "Key Largo" (1948) with director John Huston, Brooks moved into the director's chair as well. His debut came with 1950's "Crisis," a thriller with Cary Grant playing a rare dramatic role as a brain surgeon pressed into saving the life of a South American dictator (Jose Ferrer).
As writer-director, Brooks hewed closely to the tense dramas and thrillers that had made his reputation as a screenwriter. "Key Largo" star Humphrey Bogart became his leading man of choice for several pictures, and his world-weary screen persona brought both gravitas and humanity to films like "Deadline U.S.A." (1952), which tipped a hat to Brooks' newspaper career with its story of crusading reporter (Bogart) and his attempt to bring down a gangster before his paper is sold. Brooks also handled several romances, like F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Last Time I Saw Paris" (1954), with Van Johnson as a former Stars and Stripes reporter who returned to Paris and a love affair with Elizabeth Taylor. In 1955, he made headlines with "The Blackboard Jungle," an examination of school violence and juvenile delinquency with Glenn Ford as an inner city schoolteacher pitted against a hostile student body that included Sidney Poitier, Vic Morrow and Paul Mazursky. The film, which featured Bill Haley and the Comets' single "Rock Around the Clock" as its theme, was accused of fueling teenaged riots in theaters. Not surprisingly, the film's publicity helped earn Haley a No. 1 record and Brooks an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.
In the 1960s, Brooks moved away from crime and war pictures to helm stories on a larger canvas, several of which were drawn from Broadway or literature. However, many of these "A" pictures shared the same themes as his genre work. He tackled the subject of ambition and familial bonds in an adaptation of Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov" (1958), which he co-wrote with "Casablanca" (1942) authors Julius and Philip Epstein. Brooks' radical rewrite of Sinclair Lewis' "Elmer Gantry" (1960), with Burt Lancaster as a hell-raising preacher and Jean Simmons - who was married to Brooks at the time - as his seemingly angelic lover, earned the writer-director a 1960 Oscar for Best Screenplay. He also tackled two of Tennessee Williams' most celebrated plays, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958), with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman, which earned him Best Director and Adapted Screenplay Oscar nominations, and "Sweet Bird of Youth" (1962), with Geraldine Page and Ed Begley in an Oscar-winning turn.
In 1965, Brooks stepped away from Hollywood to become an independent entity, producing, writing and directing his own work. His first effort in this capacity was "Lord Jim" (1965), an adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel about a young English seaman (Peter O'Toole) who attempts to redeem himself after being branded a coward during wartime. The picture was met with mixed reviews, but Brooks rebounded with a pair of critical and box office hits. "The Professionals" (1966) featured Burt Lancaster leading Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan and Woody Strode on a mission to rescue the kidnapped wife (Claudia Cardinale) of a wealthy rancher. A rousing action film, it earned Brooks Oscar nominations for direction and screenplay. Bookending his triumphs, he followed with "In Cold Blood," Brooks' stark adaptation of Truman Capote's non-fiction novel about the brutal murder of a Kansas family by two hapless drifters (Robert Blake and Scott Wilson). Brooks shot the film on many of the actual locations, which heightened its chilling documentary aesthetic; the picture would earn Brooks Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, and would serve as a primary influence on the true crime stories that followed in its wake.
Unfortunately, "In Cold Blood" would also be Brooks' last film of note. His follow-up, "The Happy Ending" (1969), with Jean Simmons as a middle-aged, middle-class woman attempting to find herself, was ignored by critics, while 1971's "$" (Dollars), a breezy caper comedy with Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn, won critical praise but failed to find audience. "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" (1977) was his last hit, but the violent thriller, about a teacher (Diane Keaton) whose search for sexual freedom makes her the target of a psychopath, was roundly criticized for its repressive approach towards female sexuality. Brooks would direct only two films during the 1980s; both were substantial failures. "Wrong is Right" (1982) was a scabrous black comedy about a newscaster (Sean Connery) uncovering government corruption while tracking a pair of stolen nuclear devices, while "Fever Pitch" (1985) harkened back to his journalistic past in its story of reporter Ryan O'Neal and his growing addiction to gambling, which develops while he investigates the subject. Brooks would then provide his perspective on Hollywood and filmmaking for various documentaries before his death from congestive heart failure in 1992.
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"Called 'God's angry man' by fellow writer Fay Kanin, Brooks frequently made films exposing social and moral conditions he deplored, alternating these with weighty literary properties and the occasional romance or comedy. Peter O'Toole called him 'the man who lived at the top of his voice.'" --Todd McCarthy in Brooks' obituary in Variety. March 16, 1992.
Brooks has defended his alteration of literary works for his films: "The novel and the screen are very different story-telling media. Short of putting the book in front of a camera and filming the text direct, page for page, any novel must necessarily undergo critical changes. Indeed, one hallmark of a good novel is the fact that it cannot be made into a good picture without changes. And it is equally true that a novel filmed scene for scene will not be a good movie. Nor would a good film make a good novel if it were literally and painstakingly transformed to the written word." --quoted in "Hollywood Directors 1941-76", edited by Richard Koszarski (1977)
"One of the most common complaints is that screenwriters--or directors, or producers--oversimplify everything, especially motivation and the delineation of character. . . . It is difficult for authors who have never written for or made, or studied, pictures, to realize how precious screen time is, and how swiftly things can be gotten over to an audience that is looking at moving pictures." --Richard Brooks quoted in "Hollywood Directors 1941-76", edited by Richard Koszarski (1977)
"The most important thing in the whole script is structure. You can go to the stage and shoot a scene with the right structure whether you've got the best cameraman or not. But you can have the best cameraman in the world and if you have no structure you've got shit." --Richard Brooks in 1990, quoted in his obituary in The Hollywood Reporter March 12, 1992.
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